Sunday, May 8 is Mother's Day in the United States. Last year, I honored the great mother, Isis, on Mother's Day. This year, I decided to do something a little different.
It's not hard to name the Fathers of Egyptology. Carter, Ebers, Petrie, Budge, Belzoni, Champollion, and Gardiner sort of rolled off my tongue with not much effort. But what about the women? Was Egyptology only for men? No, indeed. Since I'm starting a novel with a main character who is both a woman and an Egyptologist, I've been looking for role models. So, it seems fitting that for Mother's Day, I mention a few of the women whom my protagonist might have considered heroines.
Dorothy EadyDorothy Louise Eady was also known as Omm Sety or Om Seti (16 January 1904 – 21 April 1981). Omm Sety was Keeper of the Abydos Temple of Seti I and draughtswoman for the Department of Egyptian Antiquities. She believed in a previous life she was an ancient Egyptian priestess and the lover of Seti I (father of Ramses the Great.) She is also known for her considerable historical research at Abydos. Her life and work was the subject of many articles, television documentaries, and biographies. A New York Times article described her as "one of the Western World's most intriguing and convincing modern case histories of reincarnation."
Her books include: Abydos, Omm Sety's Abydos, Omm Sety's Living Egypt: Surviving Folkways from Pharaonic Times.
Jonathan Cott's The Search for Omm Sety, which was acquired by Jackie Kennedy when she was an editor at Doubleday, is a fascinating read for those who want to know more about Omm Sety.
Side note: I hadn't heard of her when I was in Egypt the first time. My incredulous guide gave me Cott's book and said if you asked the archaeologists working at Abydos about her, they'd all say "There's really something there."
Barbara Mertz/Elizabeth Peters/Amerlia Peabody
Barbara Mertz was born on September 29, 1927, in Canton, Illinois. She graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in 1947, a master's degree in 1950, and a PhD in Egyptology in 1952. (I should add that these facts almost make her a neighbor.) She authored two books on ancient Egypt, both of which have been continuously in print. but primarily wrote mystery and suspense novels.. She became a published writer in 1964.
Under the name Barbara Michaels, she wrote primarily Gothic and supernatural thrillers. Her publisher chose that pseudonym since Mertz had already published one nonfiction book on ancient Egypt, and he didn't want the novels to be confused with her academic work. Mertz published her Amelia Peabody historical mystery series, using the nom de plume Elizabeth Peters, which were the given names of her two children.
She was member of the Editorial Advisory Board of KMT: A Modern Journal of Ancient Egypt, Egypt Exploration Society, and the James Henry Breasted Circle of the University of Chicago Oriental Institute. Her bequest also made the Petrie Museum possible. She donated her collection of several hundred Egyptian antiquities, many of historical importance. The collection grew to international stature in scope and scale thanks mainly to the extraordinary excavating career of the first Edwards Professor, William Flinders Petrie (1853-1942). (See our next Mother, Hilda Petrie)
You can find the Amelia Peabody series here. You should also check out her official website.
Mertz died at her home in Maryland on August 8, 2013.
Hilda PetrieHilda Mary Isabel Urlin Petrie (1871–1957) was an Irish Egyptologist and wife of Flinders Petrie, the father of scientific archaeology. Having studied geology, she was hired by Flinders at age 25 as an artist, which led to their marriage and a working partnership that endured for a lifetimes.
Hilda travelled and worked with Flinders to excavate and record numerous sites in Egypt and later in Palestine. She directed some excavations and often worked in difficult and dangerous conditions to produce copies of tomb hieroglyphs and plans and to record the work for reports to the Egypt Exploration Fund. When the British School of Archaeology in Egypt was founded in 1905 in London by Flinders Petrie, she worked as its secretary and fundraiser to secure support for the school and their continued excavations. Hilda took part in archaeological excavations and surveys throughout her married life, except for a period while their two children were young. Her work was published, and she also gave public lectures in London and elsewhere.
Margaret Alice MurrayMargaret Alice Murray (13 July 1863 – 13 November 1963) was an Anglo-Indian Egyptologist, archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, and folklorist. She was the first female to be appointed as a lecturer in archaeology in the United Kingdom. She served as President of the Folklore Society from 1953 to 1955 She published widely over the course of her career.
In 1894 she began studying Egyptology at University College London (UCL). Her mentor was department head Flinders Petrie, who encouraged her early academic publications and appointed her Junior Professor in 1898. IShe took part in Petrie's excavations at Abydos, Egypt, discovering the Osireion temple, and the following season investigated the Saqqara cemetery. These finds established her reputation in Egyptology.
She supplemented her UCL wage by giving public classes and lectures at the British Museum and Manchester Museum. In 1908 she led the unwrapping of Khnum-nakht, one of the mummies recovered from the Tomb of the Two Brothers. It was another first: the first time a woman publicly unwrapped a mummy. Murray authored several books on Egyptology targeted at a general audience.
Murray's work in Egyptology and archaeology was widely acclaimed and earned her the moniker of "The Grand Old Woman of Egyptology", although after her death many of her contributions to the field were overshadowed by Petrie.
You can find a list of her books on Egypt (as well as her books on witchcraft and folklore) here.
Some mothers and daughters of EgyptologyYou might also want to read The Eloquent Peasant's post The Women of Egypt and Egyptology: ancient, past, and present, although it is not strictly limited to Egyptologists.
And here is a list of female Egyptologists and links to their stories.
Barbara G. Adams
Christiane Desroches Noblecourt